Geraldine sings praises of Jewish music

The doyenne of Jewish music on why we should ‘pay attention’ to what we hear in shul


Geraldine Auerbach receiving her MBE in October 2000

Geraldine Auerbach was awarded an MBE in 2000 for her role in raising the profile of Jewish music in the UK and beyond. Yet, Jewish music had never been her life’s ambition.

In 1984, the former art teacher, 83, found herself at the epicentre of Jewish music, when, off the back of a successful B’nai B’rith concert at the Purcell Room, featuring four Israeli artists, she put on the UK’s first major Jewish music festival in just three weeks. It was such a hit that Jewish music became her calling.

“What was going to be three weeks for a festival became 40 years of devoting myself to Jewish music,” she tells the JC. “I felt that I was touching something very special. It seemed to me that Jewish music is like a red-hot cable, running from the Bible to infinity, and people wanted to be warmed by its glow. So, I have spent the rest of my life trying to make it accessible to all in every way I can.”

Born in South Africa, Geraldine married Ronnie Auerbach in 1962, and they came to London, both to meet his grandparents, who had fled Frankfurt to escape the Nazis, and for him to become an ear, nose and throat surgeon. They had three children; their eldest daughter Loren, a singer who was married to the famed folk guitarist Bert Jansch, passed away from cancer at the end of 2011.

Auerbach’s devotion to Jewish music, working with those steeped in it to deliver the study and performance of it, culminated in her establishing the Joe Loss Lectureship in Jewish Music, first at City University in 1991 and then, from 1999, as part of the Jewish Music Institute at SOAS in London. She was still teaching art at a school in Harrow, and it was only in 2000, when she had secured a day of Jewish culture at the Millennium Dome, featuring 28 acts on four different stages, that she decided to give up teaching “as I could not be writing school reports at the same time”.

Her achievements at the helm of the JMI included running major biennial month-long festivals and establishing a series of summer schools, including Klezfest and Tumbala!, now known as The Golden Peacock — Yiddish Song School. She retired from the JMI in 2012.

Her commitment to Jewish music has now led to the From Our Lips project, a celebration of synagogue music, which she is spearheading to encourage shuls “to think about what they are presenting to their congregations” and to urge congregants to “pay attention” to the music that they hear. It was created with the European Cantors Association, which Auerbach co-formed.

The project’s pinnacle is a festival of synagogue music, which begins on Sunday with a concert at New West End Synagogue. The shul’s Mosaic Voices choir will perform the premiere of composer-in-residence Benjamin Till’s new work, written to celebrate the shul’s 144-year history.

Closing the festival is a concert at Belsize Square Synagogue on April 14, featuring the synagogue’s choirs as well as the Zemel Choir.

Auerbach, who lives in Harrow, is just as enthused by the events in between, in which six synagogues Belsize Square, Central, Richmond, Kenton, New West End and Mill Hill are offering Shabbat services of musical beauty. Aptly, the first two of these services fall on Shabbat Shira (Shabbat of Song) on January 26, when conductor Benjamin Wolf will lead cantor Paul Heller and the choir at Belsize Square Synagogue, and on January 27, when cantor Steven Leas and the choir will take a special service to honour Jewish women at Central Synagogue.

Auerbach says the variety of musical offerings is important and it’s not about “excellence” or having a traditional choir. “We're looking for the kernel of Jewish prayer and how words are carried by music. And we're interested to know whether it's old, traditional music that is moving people today, whether it's new music, whether it's music that they've brought from outside."

As more members of the community have sought solace at synagogue services since October 7, the music heard in shul has played a still more important role. “In times of turmoil, people always turn to music,” says Auerbach. “It can comfort, it can console and what more significant music is there than the music of prayer?”

After all, according to Percy Scholes in The Oxford Companion to Music, music has played a bigger role in Jewish life than anywhere else. “Every word in the Bible has a tune," says Auerbach. "It’s all got a little notation you can sing every word in it. Musicologists are fascinated by synagogue music and it is the basis of liturgical music in Christianity and in Islam." People don't always acknowledge those Jewish roots, however.

The response to From Our Lips shows that things might be changing. “People are starting to pay attention,” Auerbach says with a smile. “And that's the success that we want.”

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